Tuesday, December 28, 2010

How to Listen

One of the most important traits a musician can have is how to listen effectively. Yet it's something that doesn't seem to happen often enough. It's mentioned but it's rarely taught or discussed. Listening is important for playing well in a group. It's important in figuring out (and enjoying) music. It's important in creativity.

Listen Up!

Arguably, one thing that makes great players great isn't so much their playing as it is their hearing. When listening to great players, they always seem to have a great sense of rhythm. They seem to be able to play what's 'appropriate' or 'interesting'. This comes from listening. Having great chops is one thing, knowing when to play what is another. All of this comes from listening. When playing with other players, no matter what kind of music you play, it's vitally important that you listen. You can always tell the tightest bands because the members make sure that they listen to each other. When playing with others, you should be listening to only about 40% of yourself, the rest should be everybody else. Of course the number is arbitrary, but you get the idea.

Easy Listening

There are many ways to listen. All of them are important to musicians. The first is the way you first started to listen and that's simply for enjoyment. There isn't much right brain activity, it's mostly about feeling the rhythm and melody. Beyond feeling the music, there may be some right brain activity involved in sorting out the various parts of the song and listening to the lyrics. But, you're mostly just enjoying the music without too much brain activity. This is important because this is how music is consumed a lot of the time. It's also useful when writing or listening back to your own creations. Sometimes when we write and record we get lost in the details too much and forget to just listen. This is what happens when you're right in the middle of recording. You listen back to the track but you're no longer completely separated. You're hearing the part you just recorded, your ears may be fatigued, or you may be listening to the mix. Whenever you do a lot of work on a specific track, I always suggest time to leave it. Once you've left it for a while, you come back with fresh ears. With fresh ears, you begin once again to listen like this. You hear the song, the rhythm and feel all in one instead of the separate parts. This is like the critical listening, without the actual 'technical' part.

Critical Listening Part I

This is sort of listening you do when working on tracks and recording yourself. This involves taking your performance apart and making sure it all works. This is critical in a musician's development. You must be able to sit down and critically assess your own performance. This involves pitch, timing, feel and dynamics. If you can hear the problems in your own performance, you're more likely able to fix them. It also works when writing and improvising. It means listening to your track and being able to assess if you've created the right message; to assess if it's 'working' or not. This means the lyric, the chords/harmony, phrasing, rhythm, etc. It's listening creatively to see if you're getting your message across. This is also critical in developing your own voice and style. It means listening to your dialogue and tweaking it until you're saying what you want to say.

Critical Listening Part II

This is another level of listening. This is the listening that goes on when actually playing and performing. It's the sort of listening I encourage all of my students to do. I start with playing to a metronome. Playing with a metronome isn't just about playing rhythms, it's about listening. I usually start with just practicing rhythms in 8th notes. I don't make the metronome very loud at all. This way the student has to really listen to make sure they're in time. Too often we get lost in listening to ourselves and lose track with the rest of the band. Playing with a metronome forces you to use a huge portion of your focus away from yourself. This has two outcomes. First of all, you get into the habit of not just listening to yourself but trying to 'meld in' with a group. You have to play with the metronome, not against it. So often you hear performers who seem to be in their own little world. They're in time (sort of) but they seem removed from the band and the song. This is because they're only listening to themselves and not the rest of the band, It's important that your listen to everybody else and become part of that sound, instead of simply sitting on top. Secondly, you get really sympathetic with other sounds besides your own instrument. It means you can hear any sound that you choose to focus on. It helps you isolate the kick or hi-hat when the rest of the band is playing at full boar. It makes you aware of all of the sounds going on a one time. It's great when playing with a band, you can pretty much hear what everybody else is doing (even to the point of picking out bad notes from other band members). It's almost like listening in 3D.

Combining the Difference

As you can see, there are many ways of listening. There are others but they are mostly variations of the ones listed above. Each one is valuable in it's own way. You should be able to go between each of these at will. When practicing, you want to have your 'critical listening II' going on. Making sure you're listening to everything that's going on. Making sure your rhythm and phrasing is in time. After practice, turn on your 'critical listening I' and see how your performance went. Where you in the pocket or playing ahead? Are there some interesting ideas there, or are just rambling on? After finishing up some initial takes and/or tracks, you may want to kick back and do some basic listening, seeing if it all works together. Is the message and vibe getting across, or did you make it too complicated? Make it too jazzy and not bluesy enough (or whatever you set out to do in the first place)?

Working On Your Ears

Whenever you sit down to practice, some ear training exercises should be part of your regular practice session. That means listening to and evaluating rhythms, pitches, scales, chords etc. Once you get your ear in motion and work at it everyday, a whole new world will open up for you.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Musician's Top 10 Getting It Done List

Being a working musician is tough. You're pretty much on your own. You have to take care of all of the business, networking and finances. On top of that you have to find time after a busy day to try and be creative and make some great art. Here are a list of things to help you keep focused and on track.

1. Move away from abstract ideas to actionable goals - There was a study done with two groups of people. Both groups where given a set of tasks to complete. Group A's tasks where clear and concise (like go pickup this, go here etc.); whereas Group B's tasks where a little more abstract (like having to pick out 'interesting items'). Group A completed all of the tasks whereas Group B had trouble completing the list. It's much easier for us to complete concrete, measurable goals. This especially applies to musicians because so much of what we do is abstract. For example your goal maybe to write a song. That's not well enough defined and also may not be something you can complete in one go. A better goal would be to finish a first draft of a pop song or ballad. This applies to everything; your writing, business and practice sessions.

2. Work backwards with the end in mind - This is another well known technique that is hard for musicians to convert to their art. If you're creating art, you can't start with the end in mind because you usually don't know what the end is. This works better for career goals and band/marketing/business tasks but like noted above can be helpful in your writing and practicing. For example you have a band and don't know where you want to go. You decide that you want to release a 6 song professionally done CD in 6 months. That's starting with the end in mind. Now when you get together you can start planning for that end.

3. Create and/or get involved in a community/network - One of the worst mistakes I see artists doing is working in a vacuum. Not only does networking and being in a large community help with your creativity, it helps get gigs, make money and keeps you in touch with what's going on. It also helps in the learning curve since so much can be gained from others' experience and mistakes.

4. Take note of your successes - It's easy to get carried away with trying to get stuff done that you don't take notice of what you've accomplished. This is also very important in another aspect; if you take note of your successes, you'll slowly start to learn what works and what doesn't. Most of the time musicians have to fly by the seat of their pants. If you come across something that works, take note and use it again. It doesn't matter if it goes against the grain or not, if it works for you, it works.

5. Review plans and goals often - This goes along with the previous. It's too easy to get carried away in creating music and playing without taking note of why you're doing it or if it's line with your goals. One of the great things about music is that it is literally never ending. It's too easy to go in a hundred different directions at once and in the end not get anything done at all. Make sure what you're doing stays in line with your goals. Review your goals often; edit and change when you feel the need.

6. Create time-lines and deadlines - I've known musicians how have worked on the same song for years. It's important that for every goal you write down, you create a time-line and more importantly a deadline. Try as hard as you can to adhere to these if you can. If you've put something on your list, it has to have importance to it and it has to be done. This is one of the best ways of getting things done.

7. Simplify - There are a million things that you have to do. More now than ever, a musician has to be effective in tons of areas. The best way to make sure things are getting done is to simplify. Simplify your entire life if you can. That means sometimes saying no to new projects because you must finish the ones you're on. That means using the gear you have and not needing every new piece that comes along. It means saying no to other activities to open up time for your music. Or, leaving off some new musical ventures and techniques because you have to prepare for your next gig. You must be ruthless in this area. If you are effective in this, you may actually find time opening up for all of those other things that you want to do.

8. Create working hours - It's too easy to just try and fit your musical activities into your 'free' time and hope to get it all done. The most effective way to make sure that you're getting something done everyday is to assign certain times of the day for work and practice. I separate the two; music business, and music practice. Music business can be done at almost anytime of the day although I find it's best to do it first; that way I know that it's getting done. The first thing you should do during your 'office hours' is go through your goals and planner and see what needs to be done. That way you're always on course and not likely to waste time on things that aren't on your list. Secondly, always schedule practice and writing time into your day. You may find that certain times work better for this than others. Maybe you're more creative at night therefore you would schedule your time for that. Schedule in a certain amount of time (I like to work in half hour increments) and always make sure you do at least that.

9. Be diligent - Getting stuff done on your own takes a lot of discipline. It's important that you stay focused, practice discipline (it's a muscle, not a talent), and always finish important projects. It's easy to get discouraged and let things go. It takes diligence to make it.

10. Always make time for your art - Being a musician is a 24 hour a day lifestyle. Although it may not seem like it, this list is to free your mind so you can get that all important work done. When you have a community that you are a part of, if you're taking care of the business side, if you're staying disciplined and on course, it becomes a lot easier to get more done. You'll be amazed at how much more you enjoy the process, even though there's a ton of stuff going on. Most of all, it leaves time in everyday to be creative and just enjoy being a musician.

Try and Try Again

The idea of getting things done isn't new. Most of these are tried and true techniques. Musicians and artists seem to have issues all of their own. It's important that you address these and find work-arounds. It's tough enough trying to create great art in the first place, never mind having to deal with the million other things in your life. Simplify, work hard and stay focused and you'll soon find yourself enjoying the process all that much more.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

AV Clash - Tag Mash

Edit of screen captures from live sessions using AV Clash:

AV Clash (2010) is a project by Video Jack (http://www.videojackstudios.com/) for creating audiovisual compositions, consisting of combinations of sound and audio-reactive animation loops. The sounds are retrieved from freesound.org.
More info:
André Carrilho (visuals); Nuno Coreia (interaction); Gokce Taskan (coding); Freesound.org and community (sounds)

AV Clash - Tag Mash from Video Jack on Vimeo.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Aural/Visual Synthesis project
Call For Video Art: Aural/Visual Synthesis To Soundlers By Hoop Dreams


On December 8th, 2010, REDEFINE magazine and InterArts will be curating MMMicroFestival – An Evening of Music, Movement, and Multimedia – at Holocene in Portland, Oregon. The inventive evening will feature cross-disciplinary projects and performances, including four musical acts, three performance pieces, and one video installation. (Complete event details here.)

A community-rooted project of aural and visual synthesis, the side room installation will feature an open call for video art. Portland/Seattle-based musical trio Hoop Dreams will be offering forth “Spirit Momentum,” a track from their forthcoming debut album. Artists of all disciplines and persuasions are invited to submit their video interpretations of the track, which, at one-minute-and-thirteen-seconds long, is chock full of visual fodder. Watery beats, ghostly vocals, and glitched-out sound effects float in and out without commitment, giving plenty of audio cues for artists to interpret to their liking.

Visit website for more information and for application details:

You can download the song at the above link for the project

HOOP DREAMS is a project featuring Aaron Chapman and John Bowers, of the indie psych-pop band Nurses (Dead Oceans), and Rhubarb Jackson, and is essentially the result of three multi-instrumentalists loosening their reins on traditional songwriting. Dub-influenced beats, layered vocals spanning multiple octaves of harmony, and mysterious electronic noises evoke vaguely familiar feelings of nostalgia. Despite their short durations, Hoop Dreams tracks sit densely upon the human psyche.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Musician's Top 10 Guide to Learning Music Theory

You've decided that you want to learn some theory or some new concepts on your instrument. You may start out reading a book or checking out something online but then lose interest quickly. It's kind of dry and nothing you read seems to have anything to do with what you're doing on your instrument. Here are some things to help you out and make your time learning theory a lot more effective.

1. Apply it to your instrument - Most of the time when we learn theory it's an abstact idea. It may be written down or explained to you. The most important thing you can do is apply any new ideas right to your instrument. That means if it's a new scale, chord then apply it to your instrument. Even if it's something like an abstract idea, there are ways that you can apply it so it makes sense on your instrument.

2. Commit it to memory - Learning music is accumulative. It's important that you internalize one concept because other concepts will likely stem from that. For example when learning scales, commit these to memory because that knowledge is useful in so many other areas.

3. Make learning theory a regular part of your practice sessions - There are many areas and facets to theory. Most of it isn't tough to learn but does take time. If you make learning theory part of your regular practice regimen, the cumulative effects start to add up rather quickly.

4. Always do exercises from textbooks and learning materials - Learning about music theory without doing the exercises is like learning to cook without entering the kitchen. If you've taken the time to get and read through a book on theory, go through all of the exercises. Not doing so is a waste of your time.

5. Learn piano - One of the best ways to make sense of music theory is to learn to play the piano. We're not talking about being a virtuoso here, just a working knowledge of the instrument will do. The piano is laid out in such a way that it makes perfect sense when learning things like scales, intervals, chord construction etc. It's also one of the best instruments to compose and arrange on since it's relatively easy to write a melody and accompaniment at the same time.

6. Apply it to the real world - I really started to get to know theory inside out when I had to show students how what we were learning applied to the music that they were listening to. I had to apply conventional theory to dance/club music, pop, metal and everything in between. All theory applies in one way or another. Once you get your head around what's going on in any song, it makes it a lot easier to compose, improvise and memorize.

7. Learn the fundamentals first - When I studied music at university, I wanted to start writing symphonies right away. But there were quite a few pre-requisite courses that you had to go through first. All of these pre-requisites helped in putting my compositions together later because there were so many principles involved. Make sure if you're just starting out to learn the fundamentals. It might be boring and it may nor be obvious how it applies at first, but have patience, it will.

8. Sing and play all exercises - This is another way of putting the idea of making sure everything you learn is applied. If you're reading about a new scale or chord progression or whatever, it's important that you turn it into sound; play it and turn it into sound. The best way of making sure that the sound gets into your head is to sing it. Every musician should sing. Singing puts the sound in your head like nothing else. If you've written some counterpoint, a new melody, a new chord progression, sing it and play it. You'll soon start to recognize chords and intervals without any need for an instrument.

9. Apply the theory you learn to your style of music - Again with the application. If you're a metal guitarist and are just starting to learn modes, try and apply them to metal and the specific style of music you're into. Also, go back into the songs you know and see if you can find some examples of what you're learning. This helps in getting to know a style really well and will help in your writing and your ears.

10. Don't use theory for theory's sake - Some musicians get into the trap of writing with their textbooks open. They revel in the fact that they've been very clever in using all of the latest hip voicings and scales. This is why I stress making sure you listen and turn everything into sound. It's great to push the envelope as far as sounds are concerned, but make sure you're doing it to express yourself and convey some emotion, not to impress other theorists and fellow musicians.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Practicing Your Rhythms Effectively

Most of the time when we talk about practicing we talk about scales, chords, technique and songs. But there's little talk of rhythm. In most of the music we listen today, rhythm is perhaps the most important aspect of the music. Yet most musicians spend very little time focused on just rhythm. There are a couple of things that should be included into your practice regimen that makes sure you're getting your rhythms and timing rock solid.

The Metronome

Always practice with a metronome. It's great at working one your scales, rhythms and phrasing. Some say that practicing with a metronome is bad because it will become a crutch. You'll get so used to it being there, that you won't be able to keep a straight rhythm on your own. I disagree. Metronomes are very useful for getting your timing better, especially in the initial stages of learning. That said, it's important that you practice with a metronome but also incorporate other exercises to help with your timing. Also, always make an effort to play with other musicians. This will help your rhythm (and ears) immensely.

Different Times

Play everything you practice at different tempos using the metronome. Most things are harder to play at slower tempos, not faster. If you're working on speed, this makes it easy to measure exactly where you are and how well you're doing. Don't get carried away with this though. Speed is nothing without phrasing, dynamics and feel. These are things we want to incorporate when practicing our rhythms. For example, don't just play through a scale over and over. Try dynamics on different notes and phrases. First, start of with accenting just one note (or chord) every bar. Start with 8ths and accent the first 8th note in each bar. Then accent the second 8th note etc. This really brings scales and phrases alive. It's something that we usually do automatically we strumming chords or copying solos but it helps when we break it down and do it on purpose. Next, try playing using different rhythmic patterns. Aim for controlled dynamics and smooth legato notes.

On The 2 and 4

When practicing with the metronome you'll want to try using it at different settings. For example, try setting the metronome at a slow tempo and pretend that that is the 1 and 3. Now practice your rhythms. This gets harder the slower you go. Of course most of our music uses the back beat so it's really useful to practice with the metronome on the 2 and 4. Also, try different rhythmic values like 3 on 4. Quarter note triplets and 5 notes to the beat are also interesting things to try.

On Your Own

Now try your rhythms without a metronome (or drum beat). This is something I usually don't have to tell people since it's something that most musicians do all the time. The difference here is you really want you to focus on your rhythm, That means just playing a basic rhythm or phrase over and over. No variation, no jamming. What you're trying to do is get your timing as solid as possible by just focusing on that and not on what chord or note to play next. For this exercise it's best to actually start with a metronome because we'll use that to keep track of our tempos. Start of with a very basic rhythm at a slow tempo. Start your metronome at the slow tempo to gauge the speed. Now, turn off the metronome and start playing the rhythm. Focus on keeping the tempo. Feel it in your head. Don't force it because that will make you want to speed up. Play the rhythm for a while, then go back and check your tempo on the metronome. How did you do? Yours won't be exact but you can gauge how fast or slow  you were compared to the original. Try this at different speeds. It usually helps if you actually hear and play the rhythm in your head first, before you touch the instrument. Always take half a second to internalize the speed and rhythm. Record your practice and see how it feels on playback.

Sequence This

One of the great things I love about sequencers is how many ways you can come up with (and twist) loops and grooves. If you've used any sequencers you'll know about quantization. This effectively lets you control the amount of feel on any drum beat you have. :Let's look at a couple of ways you can use this to tighten up your timing.


As we talked about in the effective practicing post, it's a good idea to practice your scales (and chords, songs, etc) to a drum beat. By setting up a basic drum beat, you can play along and practice getting a good feel. What you want to start out with is a basic swing beat. I usually start with the bare minimum: the kick is on the 1 and 3, the snare is on the 2 and 4, and the ride is doing (strict*) swing 8ths. Using this basic beat makes me focus on the swing 8th note. I then start at a slow tempo and go through the various exercises. Start with scales, using different rhythm variations. Then try various licks and phrases. Got through some chord progressions, keeping the rhythm relatively easy, focusing on placing the chords at the exact place you want. Some sequencers allow you to vary the amount of swing. Again, set up a basic beat like the one listed above. This time though, sequence in (strict) straight 8th notes. Again go through the exercises we talked about: scales, chords, licks. Now, go back and try varying the amount of swing. Try 25% and see how it feels. Before playing a note, stop and really listed to the beat. Notice the difference between that and the straight one. Don't skip this step, it's really important. Once you stop and start really taking notice of the variations in rhythms, your ear will become sensitive to hearing these things.

*That means I go in and manually enter the groove.Yes it's mechanical and boring but for our purposes here, it's what we want. 

Playing It Straight

Another thing that's great to do with sequencers is practice your rhythms with a straight beat. Set up a basic beat with no humanizing or variations. It helps our exercise if the beat is straight and boring. Again it's just a basic beat with the hi-hats doing 8ths. Now we're going to play a strict 8th rhythm and record it. Listen and lock in with the hi-hats. Once you've recorded your take, go back in and listen to your performance. First, listen to your track with the beat. How did you do? Is it in the pocket or does it go in and out? The best way to tell is to edit your take. Zoom in until you can see your rhythm track against the time-line. Do the transients of your rhythm track line up with the beats on the time-line? You'll find that most of the time you're either constantly early or constantly late. Most people are early, especially with slower tempos. Now go back to your track and move it back and forward a 64th. Does it sound better or worst. Were you early, late or right on. Fix the timing of your track until it's almost perfectly straight. Now listen to the track. If you can, compare that track to your initial take. Always listen back and take note. This is how you'll get better.

With the Band

Like I mentioned earlier, it really important that all musicians practice with other musicians. I can't stress this enough. I can't tell you how many times I've met musicians who can play the snot out of any scale and not have any feel at all. I've always found that musicians who had the best time, were the ones with the most experience playing with other musicians. When you do get a chance to get together with other musicians, take the time to practice just getting the groove. You'll find that grooves need a bit of settling. You'll start playing a groove and after a little time, it will just seem to lock (hopefully). This comes from settling into the groove, relaxing, and not worrying about what chord (or note) comes next. It's important that the rhythm section just works on the basic groove. No extras, no solos, no vocals. Just play the groove over and over. Work on listening to each other. Listen to each other and each part of the drummer's kit: listen to the hi-hats, then the kick, then the snare. Try to match what the drummer is doing. Great grooves come from knowing your instrument, your parts and listening to each other.

Doing It By Feel

After you've been working on your rhythms for a while, you'll just try to settle in and get the feel without thinking too much. This is great when you're playing with other musicians, recording, or just having fun. But you also want to dissect rhythms, practice variations, and incorporate new things into your playing. Try and incorporate some rhythm exercises into every practice session. While sometimes it may feel like you're not getting anywhere, these rhythm exercises will start creeping into your playing. You may notice that your playing gets better, and feels better. Always remember; the rhythm is paramount.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Forms in Music for Songwriters

We talked about working on arranging as part of developing your writing skills in a past post. This time we're going to go into more detail about the different forms in music. Going through all of the different forms is too much for one article, so we're going to focus on forms used in popular music. If you're an aspiring songwriter, you should be familiar with all of these forms. It's a good idea to know about the different forms, be able to hear the form in music, and be able to apply them to your own work.

The Ubiquitous Verse-Chorus

Pretty much the de-facto standard for today is the verse-chorus form. Most of the hits  you hear on the radio follow this form. It's basically an intro, followed by a verse-chorus.
There is generally a bridge just before the last chorus out but may be omitted. There are a number of ways that the bridge is handled. It's usually lyrically and harmonically different than the rest of the song. It can bring a new point of view or another side to the story. In most rock/pop songs there used to be the ubiquitous guitar solo but. since the 90's the solo has been replaced by a rap in pop music. The intro is usually pretty short, the second verse may be shorter than the first, and the final chorus will be repeated on the outro. There are many variations of this including a pre-chorus, a little section that sets you up for the chorus. If you're new to songwriting, this would be the form to start with.

a) intro - verse - chorus - verse - chorus - bridge - chorus
b) intro - verse - pre-chorus - chorus - verse - pre-chorus - chorus - bridge - chorus


Every decade of pop music has had a specific form that was used more than others. One style stays popular for a while and then slowly loses favor to another form. For example, in the 30's when jazz was the most popular music going, the AABA form (also known as the 32 bar form) was the one that was used the most. To this day, jazz standards use this form more than any other. So, if you were setting out to write the newest jazz standard, this would be a good place to start. The 'A' section would have the basic storyline and 'hook' of the song where the 'B' section would be contrasting to the first section. The last 'A' section may end slightly different than the first, using a turnaround to bring you back to the beginning of the form.

A1 - A1 - B - A2

The Refrain

A song form made popular by folk singers is the verse-refrain. This consists of a verse followed by a short one or two sentence refrain. While not used as frequently it's still a viable form that can be used to great effect. Dylan would use this form a lot. Artists like Bruce Springsteen still use this in a number of their songs.While not nearly as popular as the verse-chorus, this form can be effective in bringing a short memorable idea.

verse - refrain - verse - refrain - etc.

The Blues

Not only is the blues a style of music, it's also a very popular form that has been used in all styles of music. The basic blues consists of a 12 bar chord progression that is repeated over and over. At the end of the 12 bars there is a turn-around that brings you back to the beginning. There are other forms as far as the length; from 8 bars to 32. There are also tons of variations on the chords but the basic I-IV-V remains.The entire song repeats this form over and over. There is also an underlying form in the phrasing. It's closer to the refrain style mentioned earlier in that each verse has a single idea (usually repeated in 4 bar phrases) with a refrain at the end. The blues is used in tons of jazz standards as well as rock and pop songs. It pretty much dominated rock in the 70's. There have been many variations on this including using the verse-chorus form over a basic blues progression. Masters this style of rock would be Led Zeppelin and ZZ Top.

||: I   |        |        |       |  IV     |         | I      |         | V      | IV     | I     | V    :||
Dance Music

Dance and club songs have a form of their own. It stems from the importance of the build and breakdown. Whereas pop music likes to get to the song right away, dance remixes take their time getting to the lyric; mostly because establishing the groove is extremely important There is an opening groove that sets the song up. Then there is a small breakdown before the song and main lyric actually start. It may follow the verse chorus form or sometimes it's just a repeated phrase (usually with effects or spliced up). Then there is a big build up, followed by another breakdown and then finally the last section of the song. The groove is usually kept up until the end of the song where the producer will usually take out most of the elements, just leaving the groove. This makes it easy for DJ's to beat match and mix songs seamlessly.DJ's like David Guetta have started to dominate the charts with variations of this form.

intro (beat) - melody (riff) - breakdown - build - lyric - build - breakdown - build - lyric - out (beat)


Metal also has a form all its own. Some may argue that there is no from but it usually follows some rules. The form follows a basic verse-chorus form but makes changes along the way. A classic example would be Black Sabbath's 'Iron Man'. It starts with an opening lick that is usually (but not always) the general theme of the song. That would be repeated a number of times and then another section, with a different riff would be introduced. That would be repeated a number of times and then the 'chorus' of the song would be repeated. Then, another section would be introduced which may have something to do with the earlier sections, but may be a completely new idea. The 'chorus' would then be repeated again. There would usually be at least one guitar solo and there sometimes be a section that was in half time or double time. The general form would look something like this:
intro - A1 - B (Chorus) - A2 - B - A3 -B - C (half or double time) - B
This form is pretty much the way metal songs are written even to this day. Of course there are many variations but these are the essential elements.

New Trends

As with all arts, songwriting is constantly evolving*. There are always current trends in the way songs are written and especially the way they are arranged and produced. There is the aforementioned guitar solo being replaced by a rap in pop songs. But there have been other developments that have been showing themselves more often. One thing that has gained more popularity is songs starting off immediately with the chorus. While this has been around for some time (think of 'She Loves You' by the Beatles) it's being used more and more. It's mostly used in hiphop but has been gaining ground in other styles. Dance and club music has also had an affect on pop music.There are songs on the charts now that use the basic (verse-chorus) build-breakdown that is standard in dance. Likewise, there are 'heavier' pop songs that have used ideas from metal. There are 'metal' bands that have a poppier sound that use the forms found in metal. In this way, much like the rock from the 70's, the riff becomes a huge part of the success of the song.
*Art evolves but doesn't necessarily get better. It's mostly a reflection of society at the time.

Getting Creative

In some songwriting circles. getting creative with song structures is considered a bad idea. There's a general consensus that if you're an aspiring songwriter, it's best to stick with the tried and true verse-chorus format. While there are arguments made that it's better to get right to the chorus, it's not always that black and white. If you're writing songs and submitting them to publishers, it's better to keep it simple. That doesn't mean that you have to write one way only, but you do have to keep it simple. If they ask for something specific, give them what they want. They don't have time to listen to extended mixes and want to hear your best stuff immediately. If you're an artist, or if you're just trying to improve your craft, trying the different forms can be beneficial to your writing skills. Artists are always looking for something that will stand them out from others. Having a great song with a memorable hook and interesting form, may set you apart from all of the standard stuff.

Songwriting and Beyond

As you can see, we've barely touched the surface here. A couple of these forms have been around forever and are pretty much 'need to know' if you want to become a songwriter. Then there are variations and new forms based on different styles of music. It's a good idea to take note of the form in any music if you plan on doing any writing in that style. In some styles, like dance and metal, it's hard to separate the production (and instruments) from the songwriting. But, even with these styles it's still important to write a good line and lyric (appropriate for the style of course) so you have something of value to build upon. Happy writing.

Sunday, October 17, 2010



"POINT LINE CLOUD is a collection of audio and video collaborations between Curtis Roads and Stephen O'Reilly, it has been a ever shifting project over the years which constantly continues to evolve. The first performance of the materials that grew into the project was in 2001 at a concert with Autechre and Russell Haswell in Los Angeles. Since then it has been performed in many diverse venus around the world."

Point Line Cloud (selections) from Brian O'Reilly on Vimeo.
From Vimeo - description
"Beneath the level of the note lies the realm of sound particles. Each particle is a pinpoint of sound. Recent advances let us probe and manipulate this microacoustical world. Sound particles dissolve the rigid bricks of musical composition-the notes and their intervals-into more fluid and supple materials. The sensations of point, pulse (series of points), line (tone), and surface (texture) emerge as the density of particles increases. Sparse emissions produce rhythmic figures. By lining up the particles in rapid succession, one can induce an illusion of tone continuity or pitch. As the particles meander, they flow into liquid-like streams and rivulets. Dense agglomerations of particles form clouds of sound whose shapes evolve over time." -Curtis Roads
POINT LINE CLOUD is a collection of audio and video collaborations between Curtis Roads and myself, it has been a ever shifting project over the years which constantly continues to evolve. The first performance of the materials that grew into the project was in 2001 at a concert with Autechre and Russell Haswell in Los Angeles. Since then it has been performed in many diverse venus around the world.
The three excerpts presented are:
This work contains in part visual source materials provided by Matthew Marsden that were further layered and processed using various digital softwares.
Volt air pt. 3
The source material was generated using the analog video synthesizer the Sandin Image Processor located at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Thank you to Brett Williams and Edward Rankus who at the time helped me dig deeper into the IP.
Half life pt. 1 Sonal atoms
Was created using only a few seconds of footage that was then edited, layered, processed and re-processed to create the basis for the work. Curtis' book MICROSOUND had a profound influence on the conception of how to edit and construct this work, at times editing the video to the sound on a frame by frame level.

"When forms collapse, the resulting remains expose layered bits containing infinite possibilities. The inner workings of these fragments make up the foundation of Brian O'Reilly's videos, not unlike microsonic music composition, to which O'Reilly's oeuvre has a great affinity. This type of sound making employs sonic events shorter than musical notes creating a music of vestiges. In these works intervals of visual information are isolated and reworked in order to compose the visualizations for a particular piece. Assemblage art also infiltrates itself a great deal into the videos, albeit in an opposite direction. While assemblage utilizes found scraps to create a new object, these videos degrade original footage in order to unearth the weathered layers in these moving images. Both approaches employ as source material peripheries that would otherwise go unnoticed. By placing a "magnifying glass" onto these materials, a whole visual environment is constructed. This augmented space is precisely what O'Reilly's makes tangible." - Marcella Faustini from "An Aesthetic of Collapse: Brian O'Reilly's Cinema of Fragmentized Failure"

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Art of Arrangement: Bass

When it comes down to arranging music (any type of music), one of your prime considerations is the bass. In most styles of music, the bass plays a major role. In other styles it plays a simple supporting role; supporting, but just as important never the less. The bass makes up 1/2 of the major support in modern music, the drums being the other. It defines the groove, the feel and the underlying harmony.

The History of the Bassline

The bass line has always had a huge impact on Western Music. At one time, all a composer had to do was write the melody and bass line. They wouldn't even fill in the accompaniment.
They would use a numbering system (called 'figured bass') to let the accompanists know what to play. Around the time of Bach, when counterpoint was the way that composers wrote, writing a good bass line was an education in it's own right. In fact, Bach wrote down the 'rules' to writing a good bass line that are just as valid to this day. 

Just the Root

Most of the time in popular music, the bass player is relegated to simply playing the roots of the chords.While effective most of the time, there are tons of ways to make the bassline more interesting. First of all there is the falling or climbing bass line. This is where the bass will play a scalar or chromatic line against a number of changes. These are usually pretty effective in bringing out a harmony or part without taking too much away from the melody or other parts. These go a long way in making an interesting bass line, using more linear lines instead of the usual jumping form root to root. The use of these type of bass lines usually result in slash chords written for the rest of the band. Slash chords are usually other notes in the chord (e.g. the 3rd, 5th, or 7th) moved to the bass, but don't it doesn't have to be. Any note can go with any chord, as long it's right for the song.
Harmony used with descending bass line:
regular harmony:                            C G Am F G C Dm
bass line:                                       C B A G F E D
harmony with bass line:                  C G/B Am F G C/E Dm*
*This line is a bit long in the tooth but you get the idea.

Jazz Cats

One style of music where the bass is paramount is jazz. If it's straight forward traditional jazz, the bass player will typically be carrying the beat with a steady bass. They will usually play quarters with some embellishment added for variety. There are many things involved in playing bass in a jazz band, one of them being improvisation and having a 'dialogue' with the other players. If you're writing out a jazz arrangement for bass, most of the time you'll just indicate the chords and let the player be. If there are special notes in your arrangement as far as bass notes, you'll want to include them in the chord names to let all of the musicians (especially the bass) know what's happening at that particular time. Let the bass player choose the notes, you just indicate the harmony. If there is a specific line that is part of the head, then you'll want to indicate that. One other thing to note is that if there are any special shots, you just have to indicate them in the score. Jazz bass players will use the fifth and octave (see below), but also use other chord tones and chromatic notes to create interesting, moving bass lines. Unless you're a bass player, leave these to the pros.

I Go Out Walking

One thing that a bass player will do is walk. Walking is simply taking steps (either chromatic or scalar) between roots. This is done in almost every style of music. Jazz players walk consistently between the changes. Certain styles of rock and country will do it between certain chord changes. To make your bass line more interesting, you'll want to incorporate some walking. How much depends on the style of music and the effectiveness of the line. Sometimes a couple of notes connecting two chords at the right time is just enough for it to be effective. Just try it a couple of times throughout the arrangement. Listen back and then add or take away accordingly. (I usually find myself taking away). Try chromatic just as much as scalar patterns. Be careful in that if you sit on one of these notes long enough, or put enough of an accent on it, that passing note will then become part of your harmony. That is, since you've put so much 'emphasis' on it, the rest of the players will probably want to make a change at that spot. That means putting these walking notes on weak beats (stay away from the 1st and 3rd beat) and not letting them ring out too long (short note values).

Pedal on the Vamp

One thing that will get almost any dance tune going is a repeated bass line. This is where the bass will stay on one note or play a vamp while the other players continue with the chord changes. These can be used for a couple of changes or for a whole song  Pedals are used all the time in almost every genre of music. These are used for great effect in dance music since it reinforces the constant groove. In traditional theory it's referred to as a pedal, in jazz it's known as a vamp. Bach would use pedals in his music; usually the root or 5th on the 'pedal' (lowest notes) on an organ while running a moving harmony over top. In pop, dance and jazz it's a repeating bass line over and over while the rest of the band will play the different changes. This isn't just used in dance music though, rock players do this all of the time. In fact, if you have a set of chord changes in a pop or rock tune, try a single repeating bass line instead of just following the roots. Or have a vamp over the verse and then change the bass line with the harmony in the chorus.

The Fifth/Fourth/Octave

Another thing that bass players do is the use of the fifth and the octave. Sometimes if a chord is held for a long time or the bass player wants to add some notes to a given harmony, they'll add the fifth (or fourth below, i.e. same note) or the octave. Sometimes this procedure is used so much, it becomes a part of the style of music. Bass lines in bluegrass and country use this alteration so much so that it has become an essential part of the style. Some other types of music (especially various types of folk music) relies on this same device. But this isn't relagated to just country, it's used all over the place. From metal to dance and everything in between, the bass player will often go to the fifth when playing a bass line. The way it is used varies from style to style of course. A metal player will never alternate between the root and the fifth in straight quarters. But they will play the root, followed by the fifth in various rhythms and repetitions. The same goes for the use of the octave. One of the defining elements of disco was the alternating octave bass line. Funk slap bass and various styles of dance music use this figure a lot. Bass players love the fifth and the octave because it leaves the harmony wide open for the rest of the band; i.e. it doesn't define the chord (major, minor, 7th) other than the fact that it doesn't have a flat fifth.

Get Real

If you're going to take your arrangement and try to put it down on record, you may want to save yourself some hassle and get a real player to do it for you. Not only does this save you time, it will make your recording that much better and can be a great learning experience. If you're doing an RnB remix of one of your songs and know somebody who plays that style, try and get them in on the recording session. The player will add two things that you probably can't. One is feel. Every style has its own feel. Players in various styles just play a certain way that adds authenticity to the track. A jazz drummer doesn't hit like a rock drummer and vice versa. It's the same for bass. The player well versed in the style will have a certain feel that would be hard to replicate; no matter how great your sequencing chops. The other thing a player will bring is knowledge of the style. If you've written a basic bass line for them to follow, they may notice things that aren't obvious to someone not as well versed with the style. For example, if you've written just roots for the bass all the way through, they may suggest some alternate bass lines that may be more effective than your own. RnB bass players love to use inversions and alternate notes for the bass. Likewise if it was a metal tune, the player might notice if your changes sounded a little dated or clichéd. If a player makes some suggestions, take note and consider them. It makes the whole experience better for you and for them. If you leave your ego at the door, you may be surprised at how much you learn. Also, everybody likes to be part of the process and be heard. If a player's suggestions are seriously considered, they usually will feel better about the session and look forward to working with you more.

Bass Sounds

In certain styles of music, the actual bass sound is critical to the authenticity of the style. Some styles of dance music are defined by the sounds of the drums (especially the kick) and bass. There is a difference not only the notes played but the sound of the instrument. The same goes for certain styles of rock and pop. Reggae bass has a different sound than funk. Jazz uses the stand up bass but not always. Different genres of rock have different bass sounds. Sometimes it's the full bottom bass we're used to but in other styles it may be more mid-rangey with some distortion added for effect. The different genres of dance music rely heavily on the bass. A house bass line is completely different than a techno bass line. Not only is the bass line different, the actual sound of the bass will be different. Some genres of dance music rely more on synth lines. The actual variation of different synth bass sounds used in dance music is another post in itself. Suffice to say (particularly for dance music), pay as much attention to the sound used, as the lines used.

Recording The Bass

If you've ever spend any time mixing, you'll know the trials and tribulations of trying to mix the bass properly. This is another element of the style. How much room does the bass take up in that style? It's not just a matter of making the bass sound big. While you may think that there isn't much variation, there is. The bass in RnB takes much more room than it does in most rock. Even though the bass is of huge importance in jazz, it's usually mixed quite conservatively (i.e. in terms of how 'big' it is) compared to RnB or rock. Just put in a hip-hop song and then follow it immediately with a jazz ensemble and you'll see what I mean. (The jazz tune will probably be mixed much quieter also...part of the style.) Even between different artists within the same genre of music, there is a huge difference in how 'big' or how much room the bass takes up. Some rock artists want the big bass, but others want to make sure that the guitars take up just as much space. Remember, not everything is going to be huge. Something has to take precedence over the other. You can't have a big bassy kick, with a thick bass and bottom heavy guitars. There are too many things fighting for the same space and things are just going to get messy. If you're recording as well as arranging, these are things that you're going to have to consider when putting it all together. If you're doing any recording or mixing of bass, remember how important it is to the music: make room for it. If needed, try adding a boost around 1-2kHz or so (depending on the bass sound). It will help bring out the bass line, especially on smaller systems. Also check your mixes in a variety of situations, that's the only way you'll know for sure if it translates well.

Take The Time

When composing or arranging songs, always take time to consider the bass. Even if it doesn't take a leading role in the style of music you're arranging, it's always an important part. For every style of music, there are conventions and 'rules' that apply to that style. Make sure to take the time and learn the style and try to get the best possible 'bottom line' that you can. If at all possible, try different bass lines and different bass sounds. Try each in a mix and see how they fit. Back in Bach's time, composers were encouraged to make the best bass line they could. It didn't have to just carry the harmony, it also had to be as interesting and singable as the melody. This is something we should all still aspire to.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Circle of Fifths for Songwriters

If you're acquainted with an music theory at all,  you've heard about the circle of fifths. It's one of the building blocks of western music theory. It lists all of the keys in a circle of fifths (or fourths depending on your direction around the circle). Musicians primarily use it at first to learn the key signatures of the various keys. It starts with the key of C, which has no sharps or flats. It then goes onto G with it's one accidental of F#. Then on to D with it's two sharps F# and C#, etcetera. The interesting thing about the circle is how many different ways it applies to music.

Not only does it make it easy to memorize the different keys because it's so logically laid out, but there are many other patterns in it as well. The pattern of keys (C, G, D, A etc) also follows the occurrence of sharps (F#, C#, G#, etc) and backwards follows the occurrence of flats (Bb, Eb, Db, etc.). It also lists all of the relative minors for each major (the relative minor having the same key signature as the major). If you're serious about making music, this chart must be memorized.

Diatonics 101

One of the great applications of the circle that most people don't know about is that it tells you all of the chords in any given key. If we use C as an example: we start off with C as the major and we know immediately that we have Am as the relative minor. So we already know the I and the vi chords. If we go one step to the right, we get G, the V in C and G's relative minor Em, the iii in C. If we go one step to the left of C we get F the IV and its relative minor Dm which is the ii in C. So just by looking at the two sets of chords next to the key we're in, we get all of the chords available in that key. In C we have: C Dm Em F G Am*. The only chord we have missing is the vii...more on this in a moment. So to get all of the chords available in any given key all you have to do is start at the home key on the circle, that will be your I and vi. One step to the right and you'll have your V and iii. One step to the left of your key and you'll have your IV and ii. There's a world of songs in this alone.

Diatonic Chords in the key of C Major

*Of course this also applies to songs in the relative minor. The biggest difference here is that the Vm chord in the minor key is often made into a major. This enforces the V to Im progression. There are actually tons of variations of chord progressions in minor keys. More on this later.

The bVII Chord

The circle does really well when dealing with chords given within a certain key but what happens if you want to use some blues/rock type progressions? Well this works just as well here too, we just have to use the circle a little differently. This time we're going to stick to the majors, or the 'outside' of the circle. If we use the key of C again, we see that going right we have our V and going one step left we have our IV. But, if we keep going one more to the left we come to Bb which happens to be the bVII in the key of C. If you're familiar with pop and blues progressions, you'll know that the VII chord a major key is a minor 7th b5 chord. This chord is almost never used in popular music. In other forms of music (classical, jazz) it has specific applications. The bVII chord (a major chord) however, is often used in both pop and blues. The chord is said to be 'borrowed' from the minor but it's suffice to say here that it has a special sound. If you're not sure, trying playing a IV-V-I and then interject a bVII in there to see how it fits. It's not truly diatonic but it's been used so often that we're used to hearing it. This chord has been used in everything from the blues, to Elton John songs, to the theme to Star Wars.

Adding the bVII chord to the key of C Major

Once More to the Left

So if we start at C, go one to the left we have F, our IV chord, if we go one more to the left, we have Bb, our bVII chord. If we go one more to the left, we get Eb, our bIII chord. This is another blues/rock chord that is often used. If you strum through a I to bIII progression, it automatically sounds like rock or blues (although it is actually used in all types of music). In fact if we start at C and list the next four chords to the left in the circle, we have one of the most used rock and blues progressions of all time. We start with C the I chord, we go to F, the IV chord. One more to the left we end up at Bb, the bVII and then Eb, the bIII. This chord progression is used in everything from rock and blues, pop, to some of your favorite club songs (it's used in dance music all the time).

Adding the bVII and bIII to the key of C Major

Going Modal

Another application of circle applies to writing in songs in different modes. If you're thinking that this is revolutionary, it isn't. Modal songwriting has been around for about 500 years; Celtic music, folk songs, songs from the Middle Ages (to name a few) all use modes. We're going to look at Dorian first. A very famous song that uses this mode is 'Scarborough Fair'. We're going to use the same chart we did with the diatonic chords in the key of C. Except this time the root (red circled chord) will be on the Dm, the chord on the lower left of the highlighted circle. We start with the Dm chord; our Im chord. The F right above it will be our III chord. We're going to go to the right this time. Next we have C, our bVII chord, and Am, our Vm chord. Once more to the right and we have G, our IV chord and Em, our IIm chord. The only chord missing here is our VI chord which (like the VII in major) is special in dorian. 

Hint: When writing using modes, play through a modal progression a couple of times to get the sound in your head. That way you'll end up writing in that mode and not automatically start writing in minor or another key. Try playing a Im IV Vm chord progression a couple of times and see what I mean. This is a 'very Dorian' chord progression.
To write in another key, just move the highlighted section around the circle of fifths until you arrive at the key in which you want to explore.

The Other Modes

Writing in other modes (ie. Mixolydian, Phrygian etc.) can start with this way of putting the various chord progressions together. For example, writing in Mixolydian, we would move the red circled chord to the top right (the G in our C major example) and go from there. Once you've written songs in different modes, you'll start to see there are special cases in each mode. There's a ton more to it than this but this should be a good primer.

Variations on a Minor

Like mentioned earlier, when writing in minor keys many variations have been used. There are three different forms of the minor scale that we derive chords from. In the case of minor, these different forms get mixed and mashed together all the time. What usually happens is the song starts in the natural minor and then a couple of chords from the other minor scales are 'borrowed' to make new chord progressions. We're going to let you know the different chords available and let you choose how you want to use them. These are the chord progressions most often used in pop and rock. We won't be going into all of the different extensions since that is an article in itself. 

We've already mentioned the natural minor. This follows the same chords found in the relative major scale. If you want to know all of the chords in the other minor scales, you'll have to make some small changes to the original VI and VII chords. To make a harmonic chord progression, you'll sharpen the (flat) VII. To make a melodic minor progression, you'll have to sharpen the (flat) VI and (flat) VII. The problem with the minors isn't so much the actual chords as it is the quality of the chords. Changing the 6th and 7th notes of the minor scale changes the quality of all of the chords in that key. So just by sharpening the 7th, you've changed the qualities of all of the chords that use that note. As a result, songwriters will take chords that they like from one form of the minor and use them in various ways.

Like mentioned before, the v (minor) will often be changed to a major chord (and just as often to a dominant 7th) to reinforce the V-i progression. There are others. The IV chord is often made into a major as well. Sometimes writers will change the IV to a major and leave the as a minor. The difference between this and the modes mentioned earlier is that the rest of the chords (e.g. the VI chord) from the natural minor are left alone.

Here are some variations:

i IV V: Am F G

i iv V: Am Dm E(7)

i IV i bVII bVI v: Am D Am G F Em

i IV V: Am D E

i bIII IV V: Am C D E

And Then...

Then there are the minor chord progressions used in RnB...but that's another article. Have fun.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Visual Music in Montréal - October 2010

October 13, 14, 15, 18, 21 - 2010

A rich array of visual music events featuring film, concert, lecture and live performances of Jean Detheux's visual music works. Jeans visual music works are quite incredible.
Jean Detheux's Visual Music in Montréal
Visit: http://visualmusic.ning.com/events/event/listUserEvents?user=JeanD2 for more information

Have just viewed Jeans visual music visuals for Phrygian Gates (excerpt) Music - John Adams, piano Jean-Philippe Collard-Neven- simply stunning

view excerpt online at: http://www.vudici.net/movies/Transe_Demo/Phrygian_Gates_Demo_en.html

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Monday, September 27, 2010

Optimizing Your Creativity

Let's face it, when it comes to creativity, inspiration can be fickle. There are times when you're on fire and everything you do seems like a complete gem. Then there are other times when it all seem like complete garbage. The worst seems to be when ideas don't seem to be coming at all. There are things we can do to optimize the time when we're the most creative and what to do when we aren't.

Being On Fire

We all love those times when ideas are just flowing. The ideas are coming from every where and one seems better than the next. We all know though, that these times are fleeting and they seem to leave just as quickly as they arrived. Creativity can be like a little child. They come and go when they please. They're very erratic and can't be depended on. They can last but usually they're quite short...or never long enough. And the worst part is that the harder you try to get them to abide by your will, the harder it is to get them to cooperate. In short, when it comes to inspiration, we're at the whim of the gods.

Taking Control

So we can see that creative inspiration won't abide by our demand and will. Like the little child analogy, there are ways we can set the stage to entice creativity to come our way. We can make sure that we take time for it everyday. Creativity needs a playground. It needs a time and space to play. We can't always be there when it wants but we can set the stage and see what happens. We can have an open mind and most of all, patience. Great ideas come when they're good and ready. You should be ready too.

The Repetitiveness Of It All

Our brains work in different ways depending on our environment. Have you ever noticed that you get great ideas at the weirdest times? There are good reasons for it most of the time. There's no mystery why we come up with our best ideas when driving, vacuuming or taking a walk. Something happens to our brain when we do simple, repetitive tasks. Much like our brain when we take a walk, the brain gets into the the repetitive motions of the activity and spurs the ideas in the back of our brain. We want to get our mind into this area when we're trying to be creative. That's why being consistent with your work is such a valuable asset. Being in the right mindset helps too.

Cramming Your Day

There's also the opposite effect when we're stressed out, or trying to do too many things at once. Creativity usually can't fit inside your mind when you're preoccupied with a million other things. Try to set aside a time where you won't be bothered. Try and forget your day. Don't put too much emphasis on 'getting something done' as much as 'seeing what comes up'. If at all possible separate your 'creative days' from your 'working days'. I try to get as many of my chores done in a single day so I can devote a separate day to just creating. Pick a time of day when your mind is more quiet. Ironically, I usually find this to be the morning, you may find something else. If you're writing and your mind is preoccupied with things to do, write them down and let them go. They'll be there when you're done.

Other Places to Play

Some people say that they come up with the best ideas in weird places but have trouble getting the juices going when they get home or into the studio. I've had some musicians tell me that they've had their best ideas when teaching and working with others. There are two reasons for this. The first goes along with the notion we mentioned earlier about the environment and repetitive tasks. When teaching students, teachers are usually in the same space and same environment mentally for quite a few hours. They're also doing actions that are very similar and repetitive. The other reason is the state of mind. When sitting down and trying to get creative in the studio, you may do a couple of warm ups and get right to it. You start to bang out a couple of ideas and wonder why nothing is coming. Like the child, creativity doesn't seem to want to play today or at least won't play on demand. In the teaching scenario, you aren't asking the child to come and play. You're simply working and trying to convey ideas. You're playing on your own and leaving it open to creativity if it wants to come in a join you. Of course since your mind is on the task at hand, this happens in your sub-conscious. Working on your sub-conscious is much more effective because that's the area where your creativity stems from. Your mind isn't concerned about coming up with the next best idea, it's simply involved with the task at hand.

So What Can I Do

The best way to stimulate creativity is to just start playing. It's much more interested in playing along than being told what to do. Some people work best when they put aside a particular time of day and just get to it. If you're dismissing this right off, don't. I've always felt that I needed to be 'in the mood' or at least 'in the right state of mind' to be creative. I've also always felt that I was more effective at night than at day. The problem with this was I never really tested it. The reason why I felt this way wasn't from concrete results but it was always the time I was 'in the mood' to be creative. It amazed me when I started working in the morning because I was busy at night and didn't like losing days. To my amazement, not only were the results better, but I was getting much more done.

The Space

We've talked about this in here before. I think it's a great idea to have an area set aside to practice so that when it's time you can just get right to it. When it comes to creativity, there are a couple of ways to go about this. It's usually better to have a space set up because you can all of your items there ready to go. All you have to do is pick up your guitar and press record. The opposite to this is to work in different areas and see what happens. You may find that with creativity you may need a change in atmosphere once in a while. Be careful about having a writing area. This may put more stress on your sub-conscious. It's better to have a 'play area' and just see what flows. After you've been at a while you may find that you can get creative in pretty much any space. It's all about getting the mind into the right space and not so much your body.

Patience Is A...

If there's one trait you need to cultivate when it comes to creativity is patience. You have to be patient and wait for the ideas to come. You have to be playful and see how things evolve. If things aren't going well, try another way. Try another chord, another groove. Try something and see what happens with that. Try not to be too judgmental at first. Children don't like nay-sayers. Or, the child may still continue to try but the judgmental will eradicate any ideas as soon as they arrive. Ideas need time to germinate and grow. We have to take our time and just see what arrives. Our first reaction may not be the best every time.

Hit the Beach

I've had other musicians tell me that they're the most creative at the beach or an area like that. This actually comes from our brain being in a playful envronment. If you're stting on the beach with friends and start jamming , you may find that ideas are flying. This is again because your mind is in that playful state. It's probably not stressed, happy and most of all free to explore. Of course you don't have to be on the beach for this to work, just get into the right mindset.

Not Tonight, I Have a Headache

So what happens when you're not feeling creative at all? What if you haven't felt like doing anything for a while and when you do something, you're less than impressed with the results? Two things may be at work here. Either there may be some turmoil in your life, and the mind is focused elsewhere. Or, everything may be fine but (for usually some completely unknown reasons) the creative juices just aren't flowing. Creativity isn't a science, so there are no hard and fast rules. We won't go into the psychology of it all, we'll just look for some solutions. First off, there are a number of things that you can do to get your mind back in order without having to spent time with your therapist.

Shut It Off

Unfortunately, our minds aren't a finely tuned machine. There are things that we have no understanding of at all. But there are some things that we can do to slow the mind down. We can work on our minds like we work on our music. We can practice letting go, concentration, focusing and mind games that stimulate the creative areas. First off, one of the best things for musicians to do (actually I think it's beneficial for all people), is to work on quieting the mind. The mind is in constant motion which isn't always a good thing. One of the reasons why you seem to get creative at the weirdest moments is because the mind is quiet. I don't mean quiet in the 'not doing anything' way but quiet in the fact that it's concentrating on only one thing. Take time everyday to quiet the mind. The best method is to simply count your breaths. It seems really simple until you try to do it. You quickly realize how much junk is running through your mind at any one time.

Exercising the Mind

One thing I like to do when teaching people how to write is to throw ideas around. There are specific exercises that I do that stimulates the mind and gets the wheels turning. These work because it challenges the mind instead of 'waiting for inspiration'. If you're a writer and having trouble coming up with new ideas, try some exercises, get out of your regular cycle and see what happens. Most writers don't like the results of most of the exercises but they're there to stimulate the mind. They actually lead to something great.

Mind stimulation exercises for songwriters:

1. Give yourself an odd assignment. a) write in a musical style that you're completely unfamiliar with. I usually will give a metal guitar player an assignment to write a pop song They usually hate this but do quite well. b) write in a lyrical style that you're completely unfamiliar with. I will ask a pop songwriter to write a song based on a ridiculous theme. (e.g. rabbits falling in love, what it's like to be a dog, the political climate in America). You get the idea.

2. Become a remixer. This involves taking somebody else's work and seeing what you can do with it. Some famous composers did this all the time; Bach was famous for using folk melodies. In essence you would take the backing track (or form, or chord progression, or groove) from a song you love and see what you would do with it. This is great for writers who have a hard time with re-writes since it makes you come up with something in place of a well known piece. This can also be applied to lyrics. Take the general theme (or main line) and write a new lyric.

3. Get a book on music theory or take a course. Nothing stimulates the musician's mind more than learning other kinds of music. Learn a new chord progression or lick or some theory and apply it to your music. Even if you're in a terrible mood, it won't last long. The ideas will be flying in no time.

4. Get a toy, new way of working. Sometimes the best way of doing something is to take another approach completely. If you've always wrote on guitar, try piano. While it's not always the best solution, sometimes just getting new toy gets you in the mood to get to work. How many times have you gotten something new and just couldn't wait to get home and get to work. Be careful not to overdo this one though. Some people have way too much gear and not enough work done. 

With all of these exercises don't worry if it's good or not, just see what happens. The point is to get the juices flowing, not to create a masterpiece.

Be Like Nike

One of my favorite websites is a site about how creative people work. It's mostly writers but it gives great insight into their creative processes. One of the things that stands out to me is that fact that most of them get up early and just start working. There doesn't seem to be any regard to inspiration, creativity or even being motivated at all. It just seems like a normal part of their day. I think that therein lies their secret to success. Inspiration or not, the most important thing is to be there and get the ideas flowing. To work through all of the problems and find what you're trying to say. It's a matter of 'just doing it'. And that's it. It's not very romantic and doesn't make for great movie plots but it's honest.

True genius may come along once in a while but if you're in there everyday, you'll find that you'll be able to get creative on a daily basis and not worry as much about finding inspiration. Happy writing.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Genesi - live audiovisual - Abstract Bird

Genesi is a live audiovisual show by Abstract Bird.

Both the music and the visuals are generated in realtime using the input of two electric instruments (a wind instrument and a piano).

More information on Abstract Birds and about this piece Genesi
Some stills at: http://www.abstractbirds.com/genesi/ and flickr.com/​photos/​abstractbirds/​sets/​72157624962280404/​

Genesi by Abstract Birds

Genesi (trailer) from Abstract Birds on Vimeo.
This is a very beautiful work and at present one of my favourite audio visual pieces - ok I do have a lot of favourites, its the quietness and simple shadings - just great.

"Abstract birds are Pedro Mari and Natan Sinigaglia, two visual music artists.
Their work combines images with sounds through the use of musical instruments interfaced with generative systems dedicated to audiovisual creation in real time.
The musical aesthetic is rooted both in the tradition of classical music and in the well-established tradition of jazz, drawing in particular from the latter the improvisatory nature of execution, which is crucial in the work of Abstract Birds.
The visual aesthetic is abstract, with a conscious use of shapes and colors, although the dynamics of the audiovisual world take inspiration from the natural world."
Source: vimeo channel description - http://vimeo.com/abstractbirds

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Working Solo: Problems & Solutions

In a past post we talked about some of the problems with goals setting and planning. As a musician most of the time you're going to be on your own when it comes to trying to get things done. It's tough trying to get things done at the best of times but being on your own makes it that much harder.

What To Do

The toughest part of planning is trying to figure out what's important and what needs to be done. There isn't just one way to the top in the music industry; there are many ways of getting there. So what do you need to do? What's your first step? What's your next step? What needs to be done first? Of course the answer to any of these questions has a lot to do with where you are now and what you want to accomplish. You're going to have to do some research and development. Most companies allot a certain amount of time in research and development and as a business, you're going to have to do the same. That means spending time everyday doing some research in figuring out what people in your industry are doing to make it.

Let's look at some specific problems that musicians face and try to find some solutions.

1. "I don't even know where to start"

The Master Plan

The first part is putting together the master plan. The hardest part about this is that there is no clear cut path for musicians. You're going to have to be as creative in your endeavor for success as you are in your art. This means that most of the time you're going to be trying things out and seeing if there are any results. There are times when you know that this is the right step for you but often you won't be absolutely sure. You're going to have to try things and just 'see how they go'. This happens in music a lot so it shouldn't be a brand new paradigm for you. The musicians that go furthest in their careers are the ones that take an active approach in forwarding their career. This means finding out what other people are doing, reading material and taking courses when needed. The biggest part is that there must be some plan to action. That means whatever ideas you come up with, you must implement them. Once you've given the idea some time, you will know if it's worth continuing or just going on to something else.

2. "It's too overwhelming, I don't know how to tackle it all."

The Goals List

Putting a master plan together is great because it gives you a sense of purpose and direction. Looking at a master plan can be overwhelming when you look at all of the things that need to be done. Once you establish a goal, you need to break it down. It needs to be broken down into a list of actionable goals. Once you have these it still needs to be broken down once more into steps that can be done within a short time. The amount of time is always a variable and not always something that can be estimated correctly. Once you've done these a couple of times, it becomes easier to tell what is involved and how long it's going to take. Once you have these steps, then you can add them to your daily list.

3. "What can I do today to get the ball rolling."

The Daily Plan

The daily list is very important. I keep mine on a simple notepad. I carry it around and cross off items when they're done. You may find something else that works for you but try and keep it simple. Don't make the list another item on your list. It's good to only put a couple of items on your list. Be honest with yourself. If it's only a couple of items you're more likely to see how easy it is to complete the list. This increases the odds of getting all of the items done. Make it a habit of making daily lists even if you don't get it done. The discipline will creep in slowly if you work at it.

4. "How to do I find the people who will help my career?"


Everybody in the music business knows the importance of networking. I find that personal relationships is the lifeblood of a lot of industries not just the music business. You have to remember that it's all about personal relationships. It's about making sure that there's something for them as well as yourself. Since the industry runs on relationships it's possible to get a lot help and get a lot done just by your personal skills alone. This includes not only industry contacts but contacts with other musicians and the general public. Networking is one thing that should be on your daily list...everyday. There are always chances to make a connection with somebody be it ever so small. It's all about a number of small contacts more than it is one do or die situation. It's only after a number of contacts with the same person that things usually happen. Therefore, it's important to make those 'small' connections as much as you can without being a pest. That means you have to make a list (yes another list) and get to connecting with those people. There is no short answer for this, you're going to have to do your homework and work at it everyday.

5. "How do I make money from my music?"

The Financials

When I was putting together the business plan for my music business*, I was thrown for a loop when I had to put together the financial section. The whole idea was completely foreign to me. Not only did I not know how to even put together a financial forecast, I didn't even know how to put together my expense list. I find that a lot of artists are like this. This sort of thing is not the stuff you learn in music theory class. Nowadays the method of making money from your music isn't as straight forward as it was a decade ago. There are many avenues to take. Most of them are DIY, which is great for musicians because it puts them in control of their own music. It's a problem in the fact that there are so many avenues to take and so many details to take care of that it's overwhelming. Like networking, you're going to have to take this one step at a time. Start with releasing your music and putting it on CDBaby. Find a distributor like TuneCore to get it on all of the different outlets. Don't just let it out there though. Find out what works. There are a number of ways that you can track the sales from the different places. See where the money is coming from. Don't forget about touring as this can be the catalyst for most of your sales.

*Every musician should put together a business plan. It invaluable as far as seeing your music career as a viable business.

Keeping Motivated

The hardest thing to deal with when working on your own is keeping motivated. It's one thing to try and figure out which step to take next, it's another to keep yourself motivated when there's no one on the team but you. One of the best ways to keep motivated is to get other people involved. The best is to get others involved in your project. Things get done much more quickly when there's other people helping you out. The other is to have a community. It's important to have others that you can talk to, to seek advice from, and to kick you in the ass when you need it. Other musicians and people in the industry are the best for this since they understand what's involved. Knowing musicians, there's usually some healthy competition involved too.

The Whole Package

As you can see, there's a ton of things to take care of here. Realistically it's too much for one person to do. The launching of a music career takes a team of people to make it successful. This includes a lawyer, PR, management, bookkeepers, agents, etc. When you first start out, you're going to be on your own. The support team won't be coming onboard until there's some momentum and  money to be made. You're going to have to do it all initially. That's why it's important to keep organized. You can go crazy with it all if you don't have some organization. There has to be some  measure of if you're on the right track and if you're having any success with the route you're taking.

Be the Tortoise

Keep working, keep at it, stay organized, and get something done everyday. Soon enough you'll have a team of professionals to consult and chat with. For now though, you're on your own and nobody will work harder for you than yourself.